It is rare that I feel truly overwhelmed by a game. Only on a few occasions have I ever sat back and said, "I’m not sure I can get my head around this." Even rarer than this, however, is a game that makes me say – "I can’t get my head around this, but I am going to keep trying because I think I love it." Elite: Dangerous fits happily into this second category, and I finally think I am starting to get it.
I'm in a wide open space
It was slow going though. This is because, for the most part, Elite: Dangerous is playing the bit in between the exciting part of action sci-fi movies. You remember the moment in Empire Strikes back when Luke Skywalker says "We're not going to regroup with the others. We're going to the Dagobah system?" Well imagine if after that revelation you sat with the young Jedi for the rest of the flight - maybe with a few stops to refuel along the way – rather than cutting back to the drama unfurling with the Millennium Falcon.
But this is exactly why I like it. Elite isn't an “epic” space adventure where you have to save your species or the universe; it offers something more grounded and personal. It makes you just another pilot with a spaceship, floating around the galaxy trying to make a living. You can choose piracy, trade, exploration, or a mix of the above as you eke out your credits to upgrade your ship.
You must make your own fun in its galactic sandbox. There is the entire Milky Way to explore – which manages the odd feat of being feeling both vastly empty yet busy. This is all thanks to the jump drive, that satisfyingly delivers you to any nearby star in seconds.
Where Elite: Dangerous first came alive for me was upon arriving at the Zarece system. Having been pottering around the outskirts of civilization visiting tiny stars, I came upon what seemed to be a galactic hub. Multiple stars circle each other, all with their own celestial bodies and various space stations to visit and trade with. Dropping out of hyperspace I set course for Bartoe Station – a huge hexagonal structure, spinning in space.
See the universe
Requesting permission to dock, I head towards the vast portal that marked the entrance to the stations interior. Lining myself up with pad 43, I lower my landing gear and carefully plop the ship down. Suddenly I discover that my time on the outer reaches had not been in vain, as the station gladly paid me for my star charts. This simple moment showed me that I could play Elite however I chose.
Importantly, underlying this freedom are mechanics that really place you in your tiny ship. Looking around the cockpit pops up various interfaces and star charts. On my left I have communication and navigation tools, while on the right I have my alliances and ship configuration - all in fantastic, easily-navigated, orange-neon menus.
It sounds overwhelming, and at first it is, but a it is all so intelligently designed that nothing ever takes you long to figure out. Within an hour of play I am able to control speed, pitch, yaw, and power priorities, and weapons as I fly through solar systems; I can set jump points to travel the vast distance between planetary bodies, and even manage the minutia of landing procedures and trade.
The accuracy of these controls plays to the fact that even small tasks, like successfully mining resources, require skill and feel like a real achievement when successfully executed. Which is nothing compared to the elation you feel you get when you first successfully defend yourself and your cargo from a pirate attack.
You only get what you give
Elite: Dangerous gives you everything you need to love it, but you do have to want to engage with it. It teaches you all you need to master it systems, and provides an experience that can completely immerse you both online and offline. But it is down to you to bring the focus and drive required to discover the enjoyment hidden within this interstellar sandbox. I certainly did.